Thursday, March 26, 2009

“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times”

Star Trek II and A Tale of Two Cities
Cliché, yeah, but how apropos!

Now, I’m an old Star Trek fan (not a “Trekie”) from way back. I saw the original series in its first run. “Now I’m not bragging babe so don’t put me down” (yeah, I’m an old Beach boys lover too!) I ‘used’ to know every line from every Star Trek episode and most of lines in the first several movies. Now I really wasn’t trying to memorize it all, but when you see the movies ten times and you see a TV episode rerun everyday, you just can’t help it. But, I digress a little for context. The whole Star Trek quote:

"It was the best of times; it was the worst of times... Message Spock?" -- Kirk
"None that I am conscious of... except, of course, Happy Birthday. Surely the best of times" -- Spock

This trip was to celebrate my 60th birthday!

Charles Dickens “A Tale of Two Cities” primarily depicts the plight of the French proletariat under the brutal oppression of the French aristocracy in the years leading up to the revolution. Today, many French citizens are very upset at conditions too. I am pretty sure that their sentiment is felt globally, but the French do something about it. A one day national strike occurred while I was there and they marched right outside my apartment! It seemed to go on forever and some locals stood and watched; while I was fortunate that the Metro in the city center (and my ease of movement) was not affected.

Dickens novel was published in weekly installments. I will attempt to do at least as well, so here goes:

Mon, Mar 9th, Day I
My original reservations had a three hour layover in Philadelphia. Now, all things considered, I’d rather not be in Philadelphia for three hours, but what can you do, which is to paraphrase, my rule no.1 for travel (and not a bad one for life): Drink in and appreciate whatever materializes and you better cause it’s bound to happen and if you don’t you won’t enjoy yourself. Some weeks before my departure, the airline changed the schedule from a three to a two hour layover and the day of travel the incoming flight was delayed, so voilà; I went directly to my connection without any delay. Rode in the Airbus 330-300, the newest and biggest of the A300 series (takes 300 in coach). It was the quietest and smoothest fight I have ever been on. Sat next to a pleasant French Canadian living in LA (quite near where I lived for years). He was traveling for business; his boss was in first class. Arrived in Paris on time; no luggage problem, yeah!

Within minutes, caught the #4 Les Cars Air France bus; one hour later (noon); I was let off at Gare de Lyon, a short walk and I am at Maison Zen with Zen students to help with my needs. Just south from Place de la Bastille, my studio apartment is small and spartan yet utterly sufficient with two windows overlooking an interior courtyard. Quiet is the rule with shoes left downstairs in their own little closets; my peaceful home for 15 days.

Courtyard view from my apartment window

Colonne de Juillet and Opéra National de Paris
Place de la Bastille

Hunger intercedes; I walk past the Bastille along the wonderful and historic Rue St Antoine, tying to take in the flavor of the remarkable little store fronts; but that is not easy cause I am on a mission for something to eat and to say I am particular about my passion for food on this trip is a gross understatement; walking up the Rue de Turenne, I spot my prey: “Le Café des Musees” at #49; they show me a table without anyone else around; I point to the rear and am graciously allowed to sit near other homo sapiens at a window. I order sheepishly, seeing many things that I know don’t appeal; so by process of elimination; I leap and am rewarded. My plat is a soothing sea of veggies resting in a bit of its own broth with lovely hints of spice and a smallish green salad on top. I am totally refreshed to the base as I do the observation thing; glancing at the people in the café and out the window to see them cope; it is raining some now, with a bit of wind. Much of my trip will be devoted to practicing at this glorious French custom of relaxing and watching the world go by. And I do so with my first café.

Now, it is time for some practical errands. Nearby was the “Coiffure Jacques” where I planned to get a haircut. With my poor attempts at French, it was time for a scene that would repeat itself on a daily basis. A Brit who lived in Paris stepped in amicably and I was waiting, third in line for Jacques at his one man show.

An agreeable chat, an agreeable cut and then to the train station Gare de Lyon for my Metro card. I presented my appropriately cropped extra passport photo and got my “Navigo Découverte” which I had discovered in research and I was set for unlimited use of the Metro. A small fee (5 euro) for the card, good for years, and 16.8 euros for the week Mon thru Sun; to be recharged for another 16.8 next Mon. The one drawback to this system for tourists is that if you arrive after Wed, you can’t get a new card until the next Mon; go figure, some say, “it’s the French”.

  • On what I call the miracle of the Metro: This subway system blankets central Paris and there are convenient stops everywhere.

    Paris has the most closely spaced subway stations in the world, with 245 stations within the 41 sq mi city limits. The first line opened without ceremony on 19 July 1900, during the Exposition world’s fair. The system expanded quickly until the First World War and the core was complete by the 1920s. Extensions into suburbs were built in the 1930s. – Wikipedia

  • Trains move quickly; usually about 5 min apart except during rush hour, when it’s every 2 min. During a day, I would rarely use the Metro less than 4 times, sometimes 8 or 10 times. Just hop on and ride a stop or three or more, to the next area I wanted to be. Great people watching on the Metro too (peripherally, of course) and still plenty of time to walk my many miles a day.

    On walking: it was quite the thing. Sometimes my walking at street level would be brisk, but many times, I would want to window shop and peak in occasionally.

  • The Metro was another story. Most Parisians walk at a quick pace everywhere, but it’s darting to the Metro platform, where they bound up and down the mostly short flights of stairs. Partly to catch the earlier train, but probably for exercise too. And I did my best to keep up, especially the countless flights of stairs. Two of the original 1920s art deco stations still exist, like at Abbesses in Montmartre. Many other stations are copies of this style; but they all look marvelous to this untrained eye.

Metropolitain at Abbesses

Metro stops in a square may also have a carousel

More Metro and Carousel pics

Late afternoon was usually nap time for me; so it was home. Reinvigorated, I head out to the 17th arrondissement (17e) and my customary evenings entertainment – ‘le dîner’. This night, the winner is…. “Le Puces de Batignolles”, a neighborhood Bistro at #110 Rue Legendre. I was very hopeful to be among locals and I was. With a darkish homey décor, they were quite busy; there was a warm and satisfied energy in the air, the staff was very congenial; my table amidst others; I order the risotto with shrimp and a glass of red wine. Their wine selection by the glass consists of red, white, rosé, one each.

  • On wine: Being the wine person I am, I have doubts about these selections; the white is Chardonnay and the red is Cabernet-Merlot. I thought the only reason these varietal wines existed were to satisfy the US demand; not for the French, who must all know about wine, wrong! The wine wasn’t bad, but as I feared, it was innocuous and I sent it back as not satisfactory; asked for “Le carte de vins” and found what would come to be my MO for this trip. Since I was planning on having at least two glasses and with the high prices, I might as well order a bottle (or pitcher, if available). I spied a bottle from one of my fav little areas in Provence, it wasn’t ‘très cher’.

The wine was splendid. I was content and with thoughts of the legendary Paul Harvey, who passed recently: and here’s the rest of the story: A pattern emerges for le dîner. I noticed that wine glasses on the adjacent tables were empty; I offered; they accepted, the couple at the table to my left began to speak to me in English. He French, she Italian, both live very close, lived in Portland, OR for a year and a large part of my evenings enjoyment is augmented with friendly conversation. At the end of the evening, after desert and café I ask for L’addition; my waiter nods as he takes the bill back to the manger and has the offending glass of Cab-Merlot removed.

A short walk in the refreshing night air to the Metro; another similar walk home from the Place de Bastille; punch in the code for the outside door; turn on the courtyard light; unlock the walled gate to enter the Maison Zen garden, unlock the door to the lobby; stow my shoes; shuffle up to the third floor; peaceful slumber ensues with visions of croissant in the morning dancing in my head.

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